I usually pride myself on my unwillingness to "quit" a book that has proved difficult to get through or is prone to long digressions that distract the reader from the central plot. There were times last year when I feared that Les Miserables would meet that fate. The French classic is quite the tome, and while I knew from its earliest pages that it was beautifully written, and utterly deserving of its literary notoriety, it was no easy feat to finish.
I began the novel sometime in March, which I remember distinctly because I visited New York and Princeton then, and I was able to enjoy the reading on the commute that I always cherished when I lived in Manhattan. Needless to say, I continued to plod through it in fits and starts, finally turning to the last page on our family vacation to the Bahamas for Thanksgiving. I don't know that I have ever felt quite so victorious! Not only was I overwhelmed with a certain pride in myself for persevering, I was rewarded immensely by the emotionally satisfying conclusion and utter certainty that I had just finished one of the best novels that I had ever encountered.
The protagonist Jean Valjean will be forever cemented in my memory as an incredible example of humanity, a perfect representative of someone who has struggled against injustice and the inevitable turn of the soul towards blackness and triumphed over it, finding a way to reconcile terrible circumstances with a peaceful life. He is perfect proof for a myriad of life lessons: that one can forget past mistakes; that one can make life better, even if resources are few; that hard work and conscientiousness are virtues that will result in some rewards; that love is powerful enough for sustenance...
There are an abundance of passages and quotes from the novel that I remember stirring my heart while I read, but the few I am going to include now, from the conclusion, are worth cherishing forever.
These lines all occur in the final scenes of the book, when Cosette and Marius visit Valjean, discovering that he is on his deathbed.
"If you take me back, Monsieur Pontmercy, will that make me any different from the man I am? No. God thinks as you and I do, and he has not changed his mind. It is better for me to go. Death is a very sensible arrangement. God knows better than we do what is good for us. That you should be happy, Marius Pontmercy and Cosette, that youth should marry with the morning, that you two children should have lilac and nightingales around you, that your life should be like a lawn bathed in sunshine and glowing with enchantment; and that I, who am no longer good for anything, should now die, that is surely right."
"Because things do not always please us," said Valjean, "that is no reason for reproaching God."
"Cosette, the time has come for me to tell you your mother's name. It was Fantine. You must not forget it, Fantine, and you must bow your head whenever you speak it. She loved you greatly and she suffered greatly. She was as rich in sorrow as you are in happiness. That is how God evens things out. He watches us all from above and knows what he is doing among his splendid stars. And now I must leave you, my children. Love one another always. There is nothing else that matters in this world except love..."
Cosette and Marius fell on their knees on either side of him, stifling their tears. His hands rested on their heads, and did not move again. He lay back with his head turned up to the sky, and the light from the two candlesticks fell upon his face.
The significance of the candlesticks is worth noting. Jean Valjean, after being wrongly accused and serving prison time in the dreadful prison Toulon, escapes and is determined to start anew, despite the damage that has been wreaked upon his humanity while in prison. He is the beneficiary of the hospitality and kindness of a village bishop, the owner of the candlesticks. When Valjean leaves the home of the bishop his criminal urges overpower him and he takes the candlesticks, planning to pawn them for money. He is accidentally apprehended shortly after his departure, and the police take him straight to the bishop's home, demanding whether or not the candlesticks belong to him. The bishop immediately claims that he gave them to Jean Valjean. This generosity and forgiveness, an act of mercy, prove to instigate a rebirth in Jean Valjean's character, and truly make him the man that he turns out to be.